Absent star Marty 'Mouse' Kavanagh hails influence of Colm Bonnar on his county, writes Michael Verney
The longer the year went on, the harder it was for Marty 'Mouse' Kavanagh to finally make up his mind.
Having been immersed in Carlow hurling growing up, he could sense something special was brewing under Colm Bonnar (pictured) and he didn't want to be left out, but when opportunity knocked for a summer Stateside, it was too good to resist.
After a recent rule change at GAA Congress, those heading to the US don't become eligible to play until their county's summer activity has been completed so Kavanagh was forced to watch on from the stands for their opening Joe McDonagh Cup games.
Kavanagh's absence may not have gotten the same air-time which footballing counterpart Brendan Murphy received, but it would have been of a similar magnitude to the hurlers. That makes the Carlow hurling rising all the more remarkable.
"It was brutal to be honest with you, it was a pain in my head since Christmas time when the phone call came," Kavanagh says from his summer base in San Francisco where he is lining out with the Tipperary Hurling Club.
"We gave the league a lash and that went well and it was even harder to go because we were on such a high. It was playing in my head for weeks and weeks, but I had to make a call on it."
Winning the inaugural McDonagh Cup definitely wasn't beyond the realm of possibilities, but for that dream to come to fruition last Sunday in Croke Park without the talismanic St Mullin's attacker is an extraordinary feat.
Having captained them to Christy Ring Cup 12 months ago, Kavanagh fired 1-9 as they surprised Westmeath in the Division 2A league final in March but he was over 5,000 miles away when all the action was happening against the Lake men last weekend.
While he has "no regrets" about his decision as he sees parts of world he only dreamed of, missing out on lining out alongside his brother Jack and a host of cousins from Mount Leinster Rangers was difficult, but he was getting a blow-by-blow account from GAA HQ, even if he couldn't see it early on Sunday morning.
Shocking "Isn't it shocking to say the match was in Croke Park and I couldn't get a link to it? I had the boys keeping me up to date and I was talking to the mother and all after it, she was in Croke Park, it was like I was there," he says.
"It's been brilliant, it's great. It's unreal for such a small county like us. I'm actually just off the phone to the lads, we were FaceTiming. They're enjoying themselves this week. They're a sound aul' bunch so I hated leaving them, but they're doing well without me."
When Kavanagh returns, Division 1B league hurling awaits in the spring while they will join Galway, Kilkenny, Wexford and Dublin in next year's Leinster SHC round-robin series.
That's a far cry from playing in far-flung hurling hotspots in counties like Mayo and Down, but the upward curve hasn't surprised the recently-qualified Sport and Exercise student - where he helped IT Carlow qualify for their first Fitzgibbon Cup final last year.
"We would've been competitive against everyone growing up, we would have always had good teams. We played Kilkenny in a Leinster U-21 semi-final in Carlow in 2015 and we should have beaten them, they beat us by two points," he recalls.
"A good shove of that team is the senior team now so there's a nice blend there between old heads and young heads, even though the old heads are only 27 or 28 and they've plenty of time left on the clock."
Bonnar's arrival as part of "a top-class management team" was the catalyst for Carlow success, however, and when you hear Kavanagh speak of the two-time All-Ireland winner with Tipperary, it's obvious the regard he is held in by the Barrowsiders.
The former Wexford boss brought great pedigree with him having led Waterford IT to multiple Fitzgibbon Cup titles while he was also at the helm for Ballyhale Shamrocks' most recent All-Ireland club title victory in 2015.
"Everyone has jumped on it with him and everyone likes what he's doing. That's a lot of it too if you have a manager you want to die for, you'll go places. His man-management is second to none," Kavanagh outlines.
Amateur "He understands that it's an amateur sport, if lads are looking to go away for a few days he wouldn't mind that, he'll nearly always tell you it's okay.
"When I gave him the phone call to come over here, he said, 'I'd love for you to stay but I'm not going to stand in your way either'. He did it twice and it's such a good opportunity. You can say things like that to him.
"When he needs to be strict, he can be, but players love the way he handles things. Everyone buys into that because if he's looking after you, you're going to do everything you can on the pitch for him."
Picking from just five clubs - St Mullin's, Mount Leinster Rangers, Naomh Eoin, Ballinkillen and Erins Own - Kavanagh believes there's a "close bond" among them as a result and he expects the good times to keep rolling.
"We'd all be very close, we'd always be doing stuff together. If you're not hurling, you'd be going to the cinema or a few drinks or whatever, and you'd never find a couple of lads from the same club there, you'd find a mixture which helps.
"You have a group of players there that want to win and want to get better and compete at the highest level. We've a good few young lads that will come into it next year so things are looking good. Long may it continue.
"Every hurler in Carlow is going to be champing at the bit to get a phone call off Colm come November to come in - a few years ago lads didn't want to get a phone call to come in and play with Carlow so it's brilliant."
That can wait, as the small matter of Limerick's visit to Netwatch Cullen Park today for an All-Ireland SHC preliminary quarter-final is the most pressing matter and Kavanagh wouldn't rule out a shock.
"It's the first time ever that lads are saying that Carlow is hopping for GAA and it's going to be a great occasion. I'm sure they'll give a good account of themselves
"No one will give them a chance, but there's savage talent in that Carlow dressing-room so I wouldn't rule it out. We can do anything in Carlow, that's for sure."